In which Mitsuru discovers adolescence and will never look at chocolate bars or bananas the same way again.
Click here for an explanation of the watch party, and an invitation to chime in with your own thoughts (Tumblr tag: #Utena Watch Party).
For Returning Viewers, Vrai’s episode analysis is here for your reading pleasure:
And my own newbie-friendly commentary is below the jump.
Notes from Next Door
This commentary assumes you’ve at least seen the episode(s) under discussion. It occasionally hints at future events or calls attention to recurring themes, but will be free of specific spoilers unless otherwise noted. As a reminder, please be courteous to newcomers in your comments and mark all spoilers as such.
This is my shortest post to date, partly because it’s a fairly self-explanatory episode about burgeoning adolescence, partly for reasons we’ll get into in the next section, and partly because it’s the end of December and that means there are holiday events (and preparations for those events) which are gobbling up my free time. Oh, and also because I burned all my Analytical Energy on my Legend of Korra finale post. (Yep, turns out you have a finite amount of that. Who’da thunk it?)
We’ll kick off with some good old-fashioned subjective ramblin’, which is this: I did not remember Mitsuru’s Elevator Confessional being quite that worrisome the last time I watched this show. I was struck by his final words to Mikage, when he says that he wants to grow up not so he can do something productive or even innocuous like staying up all night or having cookies for breakfast (ah, the minor perks of adulthood), but rather so he can “wreck everything.” It speaks to a surprising rage at the core of Mitsuru’s desires, which, followed by the way his assault on Nanami is tied to sexual aggression in a much more overt way than it was with previous duelists, paints him in a far darker light than expected from the cute kid who likes making lunches.
This also brings up something I’ve been considering these past few episodes: We always see the Black Rose duelists post-defeat, and things always seem just a little bit better for them and their respective StuCo member. Miki and Kaoru can openly show affection for one another; Jury and Shiori have moved out of each other’s immediate social circles, creating some badly-needed distance; and here we see Nanami and Mitsuru acting more like equals—she views him as a (flower-framed) person, and he’s more willing to leave her side and spend time with others.
All of which seems to suggest that the duels are in some ways good for our cast, either because they’re a way for the characters to let out their bottled-up, more destructive emotions (which then “burn up” in the same cremation fires in Mikage’s chamber), or because Utena’s sword literally “cuts away” the darkness which the Black Rose draws to the surface. And if that’s the case, then it certainly paints Mikage in a different light, too.
How To Be a Grown-Up
If you’ve been reading these or pretty much anything else on this blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of overarching ideas and themes, so I usually like to touch on how our current episode addresses or deals with topics or characters in relation to what’s come before. But I found myself fumbling with this one, because unlike our previous Black Rose Duelists, who all seemed obsessed with the past or a kind of static present, Mitsuru is the first duelist looking not backwards at past mistakes and lost relationships, but forward toward adulthood and the desire for a relationship to change. So in some ways it marks a shift in focus, making it hard to connect it immediately with prior episodes.
Utena herself points this out during her conversation with Akio, when she admits that she’s never really thought about what it means to be an adult. Mitsuru’s question catches her off-guard, and she can only answer with a vague “experience in certain things,” which isn’t wrong, exactly, but Utena doesn’t have a decent enough grasp on the concept of “adulthood” to be able to explain what those “things” might entail. The other students (both the peanut gallery and presumably Mitsuru) assume she’s referring to “things” sexual in nature, but Utena herself doesn’t seem to acknowledge this—for her, her word choice isn’t an innuendo but simply a placeholder for something she can’t quite pin down.
Still, I’d say she’s on the right track, and much more aware of the complicated nature of “adulthood” than the sex-obsessed trio snooping on her conversation. As the shadow girls remind us, there are plenty of other “certain things” we experience that culturally mark us as adults—donating blood, for instance, along with “driving, voting, [and] joining the military,” as Vrai points out (Episode 18). Of course not everyone will experience all of these “adulthood moments” (and that includes sexual desire), and simply experiencing these cultural touchstones doesn’t necessarily make you an adult, either, as the “experiences” are tied as much to internal events as external ones. “Adulthood” is a slippery term, to be sure, and the more I consider it, the more Utena’s uncertain, off-the-cuff answer seems more appropriate than ever.
Even so, Mitsuru, driven partly by his own growing attraction for Nanami (and possibly Mari) and partly by the attitudes of the older students and the media around him, equates adulthood with sexuality, and takes to studying kissing scenes in films. It’s a reminder of how fiction can shape our understanding and expectations of events before we’ve actually experienced them, but there’s more to it, too, as Vrai points out:
Tsuwabuki is isolated by the oppositional forces going on his life – the individuals (like Nanami) telling him he’s “fine the way he is” while every unspoken aspect of culture impresses the importance of sexual assertiveness upon him…and how that assertiveness is impressed upon him, specifically, as a young man. Take a look at those movies he watches, almost universally the image of a man leaning into kiss a still and pliantly waiting woman. Taking charge, acting first, and never ever scared or uncertain. At his lowest point Tsuwabuki isolates and attacks Nanami (the ‘’sword pulling” this arc has always had overtones of assault, but it’s up to eleven in this episode) – the effect of that obsession with experience combined with the unaddressed fear and uncertainty pouring out as blind, harmful force (though Tsuwabuki is a Duelist at that point, at best a pure Id and at worst a will-free puppet of Mikage). (Mitsuru’s Impatience)
This sudden consideration of “adulthood” and the overt, explicit discussion of physical attraction and sexuality are somewhat new territory—both for Utena the person and Utena the anime, which has mostly dealt in innuendos up to this point. Keep in mind that it’s been several years since I last watched this show in its entirely, but now that the concept of “adulthood” has officially entered Utena’s thoughts, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see a lot more of it throughout the series as a whole, so we’ll be keeping an eye on how the desires of the students and the reasons for the duels shift as time goes on.
StuCo Under Siege
Once I decided that this episode marked a quiet turning point in the show’s focus, I couldn’t stop seeing it, and I saw it again with the brief Student Council meeting, which is understated and barely acknowledged and yet serves as a kind of watershed moment for the show, because it’s the first time that someone uninvolved with the “official” duels enters the Student Council chambers. It’s implied that Nanami gave Mitsuru permission to do so, but the shock and borderline fear on Jury and Miki’s face is hard to ignore—they’re not just annoyed but genuinely startled, as if Mitsuru should have been physically incapable of interrupting their meeting.
Add to this that Mitsuru will become a Black Rose Duelist later in the episode, and it’s as if the Black Rose Council has moved from guerilla “fringe” attacks to an all-out invasion. It’s not just the individual StuCo members being attacked now, but the organization as a whole. Their president is gone, World’s End is silent, and the members themselves have been relegated to the role of minor figures in other people’s dramas. As Vrai notes:
It’s also an interesting spin on the theme of the “unchosen” – Tsuwabuki isn’t allowed at the top of the tower because he isn’t a chosen council member, but he’s the one who will be chosen as a duelist before the episode is out. Even when a perceived stratification is crumbling those who were favored will attempt to hold to it, slipping at last from feared to pathetic. (Mitsuru’s Impatience)
It’s no accident that Mitsuru’s unexpected visit coincides with the first time we’ve ever seen rain (or any inclement weather, for that matter) on the StuCo pavilion. Whatever cohesion or protection they had in the first arc has been stripped away, and all they can do is huddle beneath their individual umbrellas, battered by forces beyond their control. It’s a stark difference from the powerful, looming image they cast in the early episodes of the series, and proof of the gradual but significant changes that have occurred since Utena walked into their lives.
Screenshots snagged from Empty Movement.